Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Flat Out for the Fens is the copyright of Jim Shead - A look at the route from the Grand Union to Bedford.First published in Waterways World June 2001.
Please Note: Nationwide Narrowboats are no longer in operation.
If you travel from Milton Keynes to Bedford by car your journey is about 15 miles, but if you want to make the trip by boat you must travel over 180 miles. The car journey is instantly forgettable; the voyage by boat will always be remembered. If the proposed Bedford to Milton Keynes canal link is opened it will not only open up a major new cruising ring but will also make the Great Ouse a weekend trip for Grand Union boaters. In the meantime Bedford remains a remote destination for canal boaters, involving the Grand Union Northampton Branch, the River Nene, the Middle Levels and the Great Ouse.
Before leaving the Grand Union main line at Gayton I always make sure that my diesel and water tanks are full and that I have had a pump-out. Facilities on the Nene are sparse and it is best to be on the safe side. Gayton Marina is also the last place you can get a security key for the Nene locks before you need to use it, so don't be tempted to pass by thinking there must be somewhere to get a key in Northampton - there isn't.
It's also a good idea to plan your trip down the Nene to take account of the limited number of moorings suitable for a flat-bottomed narrowboat. If you have a cruiser or another type of boat with a V-shaped hull you will have more options as it will be easier to find riverbank moorings. The places shown on the accompanying tables of locks and distances are all spots where I have moored at various times but the only real "mooring facilities", i.e. places with mooring posts or rings, are at Northampton, Wellingborough, Irthlingborough, Islip (at the Middle Nene Sailing Club below the lock), Fotheringhay (£2 per night) and Peterborough. Other moorings that we regularly use are: just above Cogenhoe Lock (nice walk up through the village to the pub), The King's Head at Wadenhoe (excellent food) and just above Ashton Lock (on the channel that leads to the weir). To help you plan your voyage I have also included average cruising times based on a number of voyages made over the past seven years.
After passing under the high concrete bridge, that takes the ring road over the river, you will see, on the right, the entrance to the Stanground Branch of the Nene, which passes under a railway bridge. This leads to Stanground Lock and the start of the Middle Levels. At present there is no fee payable for navigating the Middle Levels but you are required to give 24 hours notice before passing through Stanground Lock (telephone 01733 566413) which is operated by a lock keeper. The keeper here will also sell you a windlass that fits the Middle Level and Great Ouse Locks that have collars around the spindles precluding the use of the normal type of lock key.
Whittlesey is an old market town with plenty of shops, eating places and pubs. It has an old world charm and is the hometown of the Fenland writer Edward Storey. The visitor mooring is on the recreation ground before the lock. Just over two miles down Whittlesey Dyke we come to Angle Corner where to the right Bevills Leam leads almost five miles down to an impassable pumping station. To the left is the Twenty Foot River which bypasses the town of March, unfortunately the bridges on this route are so low that few boats can use it. Straight on our route continues to Floods Ferry where Whittlesey Dyke joins the Old River Nene. If there is time to spare, turning right here, one can take a trip of just over eight miles to the town of Ramsey. There are moorings in the town basin but if your boat is much over 57 feet long you will need to turn at the marina rather than in the basin.
Turning left at Floods Ferry takes us down the Old Nene to March. A little way before the town we pass Fox's Marina, which offers boat building and all the usual marina services. It is also the only place to hire boats between the start of our journey at Gayton and Denver. There are two places to moor in March town centre, one on the right just before the bridge, the other on the left just after. March is another pleasant fenland town with a good selection of shops and services.
The lock takes us down into King's Dyke (the king in question being Canute) one of a series of waterways that form the "Through Route" to the Great Ouse at Salter's Lode. All the junctions along the route are marked by blue and white direction boards so navigating the route is easy. When we get to Whittlesey King's Dyke changes to Whittlesey Dyke, about half a mile before Ashline Lock, although there is no visible change in the waterway. This lock, which is boater operated, was lengthened in 1998 allowing 70 foot boats to pass through to the Middle Levels to the Great Ouse.
Almost six miles of open fen countryside, past a couple more river junctions, takes us from March to Marmont Priory Lock. After the lock the village of Upwell soon appears and houses line both sides of the river with the occasional shop and pub inviting us to buy. If you succumb to these temptations there's a visitor mooring by the church, as well as a pub and a restaurant with moorings. Upwell merges into Outwell as we come to Outwell Junction. There are moorings on the left here as the waterway turns sharp right and becomes Well Creek. The next five miles take us to Salter's Lode where we must take a short tidal hop to Denver Sluice. There are plenty of moorings at Salter's Lode but if you want to visit a pub it's best to stop at Nordelph, two miles before the lock.
Salter's Lode Lock is only 63 feet long but full length narrowboats can get through when the tides are right (which doesn't happen everyday) so it's best to ring the Lock Keeper for advice when planning the journey. Our tidal trip is less than half a mile but, due to the silt in the river and the headroom restrictions at Salter's Lode Lock, can only be done when the tide is right even with a boat of 63 feet or less.
Once through Denver Lock we can look forward to a good few miles of lock free cruising, most of it on wide reaches. The river from here to Earith is known as the Old River to distinguish it from the New Bedford River (also called the Hundred Foot River) which takes a shorter, tidal, course between these points. Although this river is called both the Great Ouse and the Old River this has been deemed insufficient by the local nomenclator who has decreed that it will also be known as the Ten Mile River (from Denver to Littleport), the Ely Ouse (from Littleport to Pope's Corner) and the Old West River (from Popes Corner to Earith).
About a mile from Denver we come to the junction with the River Wissey which is navigable for about 8 miles to Stoke Ferry for most narrowboats or 10 miles for smaller craft. Although this river has the ignominy of only having one name, as a cruising ground it is in no way inferior to its multi-named neighbours. Six miles on is the junction with the Little Ouse, Brandon River or Brandon Creek, which provides thirteen miles of delightful lock free cruising to Brandon Lock. Littleport is about three miles from this junction and offers moorings for the town. The river is straight and wide almost the whole way from Littleport to Ely. The last tributary before Ely appears roughly midway; this is the River Lark, which can be navigated for ten miles to Judes Ferry and has just one lock.
Ely stands on a hill that was, before the draining of the fens, literally the Isle of Ely. The cathedral, often called "the ship of the fens" stands on the top of the hill and can be seen for miles around. This little city has plenty of shops and other facilities in the town centre and a large supermarket next to the railway station. Three miles beyond Ely we come to Popes Corner where the Fish & Duck pub stands. Straight on is the River Cam, leading to Cambridge, to the right is the route to Bedford along the narrower channel of the Old West River. We have left the straight artificial channels of the lower river and now follow a more natural river course which bends and at times meanders. We pass Stretham Steam Pumping Engine, open to visitors at weekends, and a couple of pubs with moorings on our way to Hermitage Lock, which is operated by a lock keeper.
After the lock we pass the junction with the New Bedford River, and the sluice that runs water into the Old Bedford. This means that this part of the river is tidal. Although it is a long way from here to the Wash some tidal effect is seen so be sure to leave some slack if you moor before reaching Brownshill Lock. There are some pubs with waterside gardens at Earith so on a hot day you may be tempted to stop for a lemonade. After Brownshill two more pubs beckon us in, the Pike & Eel Inn, with riverside garden and moorings, and the Ferry Boat Inn, in an attractive setting at Holywell. After a reach of five miles we come to St Ives Lock and then the town. There are two mooring places in St Ives, one on the Town Quay, just before the historic bridge, and another on the backwater on the right a little way after the bridge.
Gradually we are leaving the fens behind as we climb up the Ouse valley. There are thirteen more locks before Bedford Bridge, the next being less than two miles away at Hemingford. Above the lock is the village of Hemingford Grey with its truncated spire (the largest part of which collapsed into the river during a storm in 1741) followed by Hemingford Abbots and Houghton Lock. In the next reach we pass the extensive marina at Hartford followed by the beautiful riverside cottages and church by Hartford village before arriving at Huntingdon, the birth place of that fierce parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell and now the home and constituency of the well known parliamentarian John Major. There are moorings by the park and immediately before the bridge.
All this part of the river is well served with boatyards and has a large population of local boaters. After passing Godmanchester and Brampton locks we come to another large marina before reaching Offord Lock which is situated on a fairly long and narrow cut. Emerging back onto the wide river we have over three miles before arriving at St Neots Lock, standing beside a huge old paper mill. This like most of the Ouse locks has a guillotine gate, this time at the bottom end of the lock although some are at the top end. Its guillotine gate, like many on the river, is electrically operated. Some you have to operate by hand but they are not so heavy to wind as the Nene gates. The town of St Neots is a mile further on and the best moorings for the town centre are on the pontoons on the left just before the bridge. There are at least three boatyards in this reach with River Mill Boats just below Eaton Socon Lock being in the most accessible position.
Once we have shaken off the last remnants of St Neots the journey to Bedford is particularly pleasing as the river becomes narrower and more intimate. We start to encounter real bends to exercise our tiller arms and we travel through a changing rural landscape all the way to Cardington Lock. Some places en route worth mentioning are: the Anchor Hotel, just past Tempsford Bridge, where there are moorings beside the large garden; Great Barford with moorings just below the old bridge and close by is the excellent Anchor pub; and if you can't find space at Great Barford or if you want a quiet mooring for the night you can stop in the backwater of an old lock cut less than half a mile further on.
Cardington was once the home of the R101 airship, today only the massive hangers remain. For us Cardington Lock marks the start of our entry to Bedford, where there are moorings above and below the town lock. If you don't want to moor overnight in the town the Priory Marina is close by. If you really like to go to the end of every waterway it is possible to navigate two or three miles above Bedford Bridge to near Kempston Mill.
Our journey has been one of variety, of out of the way villages and old market towns, of river valleys and the massive skies of open fenland. Now we end the voyage so near and yet so far from our starting point. We haven't got the Bedford to Milton Keynes canal link yet but look on the bright side, just turn round and enjoy the journey back.
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